President Obama Showcases Why Faster Isn't Better

Rob Enderle

I know a lot of executives who seem to think that, when in doubt, doing something is better than doing nothing. They seem to use this as an excuse for making what otherwise would be avoidable mistakes.

 

In the current environment, avoidable mistakes can sink companies.

 

I attribute the problems President Obama is having to the flawed theory that doing something is always, or even generally, better than doing nothing. Currently President Obama has lost three potential cabinet members, the Treasury Secretary got in by the skin of his teeth, another possibly at risk and they now have new vetting rules.

 

The right process, clearly in hindsight, should have been good vetting rules first and then pick cabinet members. By doing it backwards, the recovery package is delayed and the nation is put at additional risk and Obama and his people are bleeding the very credibility that might have allowed them to truly make a difference.

 

Let's talk about speed vs. quality as it relates to decisions.

Speed vs. Quality

One of the more interesting jobs I've held is that of Competitive Analyst. There is a professional organization (SCIP) for Competitive Analysts and, figuring it might be good to learn from peers, I joined and regularly attended while I had the job. One of the most memorable presentations was on this very topic.


 

The speaker drew a typical quadrant chart. To the left was speed and to the right was quality. Starting from the left, he drew a line down and to the right. This was to exemplify the path of most executives he had worked with typically took -- the line ended up in the lower part of the lower-right quadrant or the square labeled "disaster." He then drew a line that went up and then moved to the right ending up in the upper right square titled "success" and pointed out that if you spent the time to figure out what the right course of action was before you sped up, you were more likely to actually reach the desired destination.

The Map Metaphor

The presenter used the map metaphor to point out that if you were to leave in a ship at full speed towards an unknown port, there was about a 50/50 chance you'd be heading in the wrong direction. If you could at least determine the general direction first, you could then course-correct during the trip. The more accurate the initial direction, the faster your travel would be from that point. But if you took too long and were excessive in your desire for accuracy, no speed would be able to make up for the time lost to the process of initial navigation.

 

This forms the basis for the poorly worded "It is better to make a bad decision than no decision" recommendation.

 

This last argument was to reintroduce balance and a tendency for some to avoid making decisions until the outcomes were absolute, which almost never happens, and effectively freeze the unit. I actually had one of my bosses at IBM argue that this was the only way to operate successfully in IBM - and IBM was vastly better off when that guy retired.

Windows Vista vs. Windows 7

A good current example of the right and wrong way to balance decision quality against speed is Windows Vista's initial version compared to Windows 7. With Vista, the product had a sense of being rushed from the start in that it was a moving target as changing security and feature decisions had to be reversed. Then, after this had resulted in unacceptable delays, it was rushed to market with major missing components into an ecosystem that wasn't even close to ready for it. This, however, allowed the direction for Windows 7 to be clear, getting it through the beta process not only more quickly but feature-complete and with a ready ecosystem, and in much better shape. In the first instance, speed constantly outranked direction and, in the second, direction clearly came first, with the result a vastly better product even in beta than Vista was at launch.

Wrapping Up: Quality and Speed Need to Be in Balance

The lesson here is that while it is important to act promptly, it is actually more important to act appropriately because lots of bad decisions generally create a drag on performance -- they don't improve it. Both Mark Hurd at HP and Steve Jobs at Apple showcase this on a regular basis. They take the time to think through what they need done and then push their folks hard to do it. The result is companies that are at the top of their game.

 

While it is great to have a U.S. President that will admit his mistakes, it would likely be far better if he avoided them in the first place. The problems typically come from the mistakes, not the admissions. The current economic environment will be incredibly unforgiving if folks learn this lesson from doing and not by watching the mistakes of others. Use Obama's problems to remind yourself that the quality of a decision is at least as important as its speed. The runner that wins a race seldom is the one that starts out leading it, particularly if they are headed in the wrong direction.



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Feb 5, 2009 2:42 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to Ken Hardin

Thanks for the question:

First, before providing a decision, you need to make sure the question is fully framed.  For instance let's say you are on one side of a road and need to be on the other part of the framework for the decision is the need to arrive on the other side alive so part of the framework underneath the decision is safety thus preventing the fast decision to run across the road and pausing to look both ways. 

Second, you need to make sure the framework for the decision is from your, or your company's, frame of reference.   Someone selling an armored car, for instance, might have as part of their framework the extra security you don't need of buying an armored car and getting in it first before crossing the road. 

Third you need to apply strategic foresight to the decision, for instance if there are rabid wolves on the other side of the road, you may want that armored car option after all because you want to survive after your arrive.  This takes us to making sure the whole problem is defined before the decision is made so that a tactical decision doesn't lead to strategic problems.

Applied to the Obama example his need for a board should have included the requirement that they survive vetting.   Thinking through that might have resulted in a vetting team made up of people from both Bush and Clinton administrations coupled with one of more aggressive congressional leaders or their staff (to anticipate new questions) in order to create a robust vetting process that would have done a better job assuring confirmation. 

Thinking strategically part of the process might include a review of how much of a team player each candidate is and whether there are known personal or financial conflicts that could arise after they took the job or any other issues that might arise from known or anticipated future events.  This last could be used to both better vet the candidate and better prepare them once they were selected for the job given the true goal is not the success of the appointment but the success of the overall cabinet and administration efforts. 

Fourth, and this is generally forgotten, there should be a review process so that mistakes are captured and used to prevent future mistakes.   This clearly was forgotten in the Obama case as the Clinton administration had similar problems which should have forewarned and prevented their recurrence.  People tend to want to put problems behind them but if an effort isn't made to analyze and document the mistake and to make this documentation available to existing or subsequent decision makers than the mistakes tend to reappear at irregular intervals.  

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Feb 5, 2009 12:06 PM Ken Hardin Ken Hardin  says:

Hey, Rob - Ken Hardin here. What are some structural things a C-suite person or manager should demand as a check against rushing into bad decisions? Full competitive analysis? Full business case? Are there truncated versions of these processes that suffice when times are tight?

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